Tag Archives: Pomarine Skua

2nd Nov 2018 – Late Autumn, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of Late Autumn Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a glorious sunny day today, with blue sky and with winds falling light. A great day to be out.

As we made our way west along the coast road, we stopped briefly just outside Burnham Overy Staithe to admire a large flock of Pink-footed Geese in a stubble field by the road. We could see their dark heads and small, mostly dark bills.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – feeding in the stubble as we drove past this morning

Our first destination for the morning was Holme. As we got out of the car, a large flock of Starlings flew low over us, heading west. It was to be a feature of the morning, with a constant stream of Starlings moving, many passing low over the  beach. These are birds arriving from the continent for the winter, coasting here before turning inland.

There were small numbers of Chaffinches moving too first thing, and three Jackdaws west over the beach looked like they might be migrants too. A Skylark was singing, but others looked like they might be fresh arrivals, also on the move. As we walked across the golf course, a Sparrowhawk flew low over the fairway and into the dunes, presumably hoping to find some tired migrants in the bushes.

When we got over to the saltmarsh, we could see several people with binoculars and telescopes walking through the vegetation. They flushed several small groups of birds as they went – mainly Skylarks and Linnets. But as one flock came up, we heard a Shorelark call and it seemed to drop over the dunes towards beach with all the other birds.

We walked over the dunes but all we could see were a couple of Skylarks down on the high tideline. We couldn’t see where everything else had gone.

We stopped to scan the beach, looking through the waders dotted about on the sand. There were lots of Oystercatchers and Redshank, several Turnstones, silvery white Sanderling running up and down in front of the waves and a single Knot. All along the shoreline, Cormorants were standing, drying their wings in the morning sunshine.

There were lots of dog walkers out now, particularly on the beach towards Old Hunstanton. As the dogs raced around on the sand, they flushed all the birds down that end, which flew up past us. As well as lots of Oystercatchers and Brent Geese shining in the morning light as they passed by, we could see a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits with them too.

There didn’t seem to be much on the sea, looking out from here. A lone Red-breasted Merganser flew past. As we stood and watched, we started to notice flocks of Teal coming in low over the waves, 20-50 at a time. They poured past all the time we were watching, hundreds by the time we left, all birds arriving here from the continent for the winter. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese came in off the sea too – we watched one flock all the way in from out towards the wind farms. Real migration in action

Then we noticed a large, dark bird coming along the beach straight towards us. It was a juvenile Pomarine Skua, presumably blown inshore by last week’s storms and now scavenging along the shoreline here.

There was no sign of any Shorelarks out on the beach here, so we started to walk back the other way. As we did so, a Shorelark flew over calling and we watched it drop down over the far side of saltmarsh, on the edge of the dunes. Unfortunately, by the time we got round there, we found two people walking along the tideline, and there was no sign of it. We turned back to continue east and we hadn’t gone more than a few metres when the Shorelark flew past again.

This time it dropped down on an open area of saltmarsh, and we could see where it landed. We walked over and had a good look at the Shorelark through the scope out in the open, before it ran across and disappeared into the vegetation. We made our way round to the other side, to see if we could find it again, and it ran out of the saltmarsh right in front of us. It was just a few metres away and we had a great view of it through our binoculars. We could see its bright yellow face catching the sun as it turned, with a black bandit mask.

Shorelark

Shorelark – we could only find one on the beach today

Eventually the Shorelark ran back into the vegetation. There has been a flock of over ten here in recent days, so this one was probably looking for the rest of them. We decided to walk up a little further along the beach, to see if we could find the flock and to have a look at the sea up towards Gore Point.

We didn’t quite get that far, but we stopped to scan the sea from the beach. There were lots of Great Crested Grebes offshore, their white winter faces and necks shining in the morning light as they crested the waves. There were three grebes together not far offshore, diving and drifting with the tide. One looked much smaller than the others and through the scope we could see it was a Slavonian Grebe with two Great Crested Grebes.

Otherwise, all we could see off here today was a young Gannet diving offshore, way off in the distance. We decided not to continue along the beach, so we turned and headed back to the car. As we got there, we heard Fieldfares chacking, and looked up to see a large flock flying over. They were quite spread out, but they continued to pass overhead for several seconds. A couple of Redwings flew over with them, teezing.

Fieldfare

Fieldfare – a large flock flew over as we got back to the car

Our next stop was at Thornham Harbour. All we could find in the channel by the road was a single Common Redshank, perhaps because there were several people walking around here now, out enjoying the lovely morning. There were a couple more Redshank by the sluice and further out along the edge of the harbour, two Greenshank were roosting on the muddy bank. They really stood out, their much whiter underparts glowing in the sunshine.

Up on the seawall, we made our way along to the corner where we stood for a while and scanned. A large flock of Curlew flew past with a single Bar-tailed Godwit in with them. They circled round and landed down on the saltmarsh out in the middle, joining an even larger group which was already roosting there, well camouflaged in the vegetation. There were two Grey Plover feeding down on the muddy island in the harbour channel and they were joined by a couple more Bar-tailed Godwits which gave us a chance to get a good look at them in the scope. Further out, a couple of Ringed Plover were roosting on the edge of the channel.

Looking out to the middle of the harbour, we could see lots of gulls roosting, mainly Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. Around the edges of the channels, we could see lots of Brent Geese, lots of Wigeon and a few Shelducks. A Little Egret flew in, flashing its yellow feet, and landed in the mud just below the bank.

Little Egret

Little Egret – flew in and landed in the muddy channel next to us

Several Linnets flew back and forth across the saltmarsh, in small groups. But when another four small finches flew past, their distinctive call immediately attracted our attention. They were Twite, once a common wintering bird along the coast here, but now mainly restricted to a handful of sites of which this is the best.

The Twite flew past us and out over the saltmarsh, getting almost to Holme before they circled back round and flew in past us again. They had picked up a few friends, as there were eight of them now. They wouldn’t settle though, and they circled round and back out towards Holme again. When they came round past us for a third time, this time they headed for their favourite tree in the field nearby and landed. They were silhouetted against the sun though, so it wasn’t a great view.

The Twite showed no sign of moving, so we turned our attention back to the harbour. Eventually, they took off again and we heard them calling as they flew in behind us. This time, two of them dropped down to the puddles on the seawall to drink. We had a quick look at them through the scope – their yellow bills catching the sun – before they flew off again and disappeared out over the saltmarsh.

As we made our way back, a small flock of Linnets flew in and landed on some seedheads on the edge of the saltmarsh below the path. Through the scope, we could see they were duller and darker, with grey bills. Tide coming in fast now.

Our final destination for the day was Titchwell. It was time for lunch when we arrived, and we ate watching the finches and tits on the feeders by the Visitor Centre. After lunch, we made a quick trip back to the car park to get the scope, where a Chiffchaff was calling in the sallows by the path.

Walking out along the main path, we couldn’t see anything of note on the former pool on the Thornham grazing marsh, which is now getting very overgrown. A Cetti’s Warbler was calling in the reeds, but there was nothing at all on the reedbed pool. A couple of Coot were feeding in one of the reedbed channels.

Avocets

Avocet – there were still seven on the Freshmarsh today

The Freshmarsh looked rather quiet today, when we arrived. The reeds in front of Parrinder Hide looked freshly cut, so we suspected the wardens had been clearing vegetation on here and had probably scared a lot of birds off. There were still a few waders on here, most notably seven lingering Avocets and a small flock of Bar-tailed Godwits which had presumably flown in to roost from the beach on the rising tide. A single Dunlin was feeding in front of Parrinder Hide.

While we were watching, a few Ruff flew in and landed down onto the mud, winter adults with pale scalloped upperparts. Several groups of Golden Plovers dropped in too, but they were rather nervous and wouldn’t settle, flying up again and whirling round in the sunshine, flashing alternately golden brown and white. Great to watch!

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – a large flock whirled round over the Freshmarsh

Small groups of Brent Geese commuted in and out from the saltmarsh too. There are plenty of ducks here now, as birds have returned for the winter – Teal, Shoveler and Wigeon. The drakes are now moulting out of eclipse plumage and back into their breeding finery, slowly getting back to their best. A single Greylag and one of the two injured Pink-footed Geese, which have spent the whole year here, were feeding on one of the closer islands. There were two Egyptian Geese here too.

We had already seen one Red Kite, very distantly hanging in the air over the fields inland. Then when everything flushed from the Freshmarsh, we looked up to see a Red Kite drifting over. It made a beeline directly out towards the beach, and was swiftly followed by a second Red Kite which followed it.

Red Kite

Red Kite – one of two which passed over the Freshmarsh this afternoon

It was nice in the sunshine up on the West Bank path today, so we didn’t feel any rush to go into the hides. With the weather so calm and the light so good, we decided to head straight up to the beach. The tide was in when we got to the Volunteer Marsh, but a nice close Common Redshank was feeding along the muddy edge just below us.

Common Redshank

Common Redshank – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh on the way out

All the waders were roosting on the one remaining island on the no-longer ‘tidal’ pools today, which was why they were not on the Freshmarsh. There were lots of Oystercatchers, Grey Plover and Dunlin. Several much paler birds really stood out and through the scope, we could see they were four Spotted Redshanks and three Greenshank. We had a good look at the Spotted Redshanks, noting their longer, needle-fine bills and white stripe over the lores.

Carrying on to the beach, the sea was in and covering all the mussel beds. The Turnstones had taken to roosting on the concrete blocks of the old bunker and looking more closely we could see there was a single Purple Sandpiper hiding in with them. We walked down the beach and got it in the scope for a closer look.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – on the concrete blocks out on the beach

The Purple Sandpiper dropped down to feed on the beach with the Turnstones, picking around in the pile of razorshells left behind by last week’s storms. There were several Sanderling running around on the sand too, in and out of the waves like clockwork toys, and a larger group trying to roost on the beach further down. A couple of Bar-tailed Godwits were feeding along the edge of the water.

Looking out to sea, we could still see lots of Great Crested Grebes, but with the sea much calmer than this morning they were all now very distant. Three Razorbills in a small group were diving offshore, not easy to see despite the gentle swell, and three Common Eider flew east offshore. There were still more small skeins of Pink-footed Geese coming in off the sea – we could hear their high-pitched yelping calls as they flew in over the beach.

As we walked back along the main path, we stopped to admire one of the Spotted Redshanks which had now moved to the Volunteer Marsh. It was feeding with a Common Redshank in the channel just below the bank, very close to the path, giving us a great, close-up, side-by-side comparison. We could even see the small downward kink in the tip of the Spotted Redshank‘s bill through our binoculars – it was too close for a scope!

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – showing very well on the way back

A Little Egret was fishing here too. As the tide was going out, small fish and invertebrates were trapped in the pools or trying to escape over the small weirs created by the mud, providing easy prey for the birds. We watched the Spotted Redshank catch a large shrimp. It seemed to play with it for several minutes, dropping it back in the water, picking it up and turning it in its bill, then dropping it again. We thought it might lose it at one point but eventually it seemed to have enough and with a bit of effort, managed to swallow it.

Lots of other waders had gathered in the wider channel which runs back away from the path too. We stopped to admire a Bar-tailed Godwit on the mud, and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits feeding in the deeper channel nearby. A Grey Plover was positively glowing in the last of the afternoon’s light, and there were plenty of Redshank and a few Curlew here now too. A couple of smart drake Teal swam past.

Suddenly a large dark shape came hurtling towards us low over the Volunteer Marsh. It turned at the last minute and crash-landed on the path beside us, just a couple of metres away. It was a Woodcock, presumably a fresh arrival in off the sea from the continent. It took a couple of seconds to get its bearings, saw us, and then flew off quickly over the bank.

Back at the Freshmarsh, the gulls were starting to gather to roost. We stopped to look through them. They were mainly Black-headed Gulls, with an increasing number of larger ones, mainly Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. One caught our eye – slightly darker than the Herring Gulls but not as dark as a Lesser Black-backed Gull. It was chunky too, with a heavy bill, and a rather white head with limited and fine dark streaking around the eye. It was an adult Yellow-legged Gull, but unfortunately it waded into the deeper water and hid its yellow legs from view.

The Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost too now. We could see three or four over the back of the reedbed or over the trees beyond. The light was starting to go, so we made our way back to the car. As we got back to the car park a flock of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the trees and we managed to pick out a Blackcap feeding in the sycamore with them just as we packed up to go.

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27th Oct 2018 – Autumn Weekend, Day 1

Day 1 of a weekend of Autumn Tours today. It was a wet and windy day, with a cold and gusty northerly bringing squally showers in off the North Sea. Perfect seawatching weather – but we had a few other things we wanted to try to do today as well.

With seawatching in mind, we made our way over to Sheringham first thing. It was a big tide this morning and with the strong north wind, the waves were crashing over the prom. It meant we couldn’t get along the prom to the shelter, so we had to drive round to the other side, and it also meant there were already a lot of people taking shelter here. We managed to find a spot out of the wind and settled in to scan the sea.

It was immediately clear there was a lot of wildfowl moving this morning, birds arriving from the continent, coming in over the North Sea to spend the winter here. We saw a steady stream of flocks of Wigeon and Teal flying past, mostly low over the waves. A couple of groups of Common Scoter coming past further out, and then some flew through with a group of Teal, providing a nice size and colour contrast.

The Brent Geese are arriving for the winter too at the moment, flying in short lines, and there were a small number of Shelducks, sometimes mixed in with them. Two Goldeneye flying past were the wildfowl highlight.

There was a steady movement of commoner seabirds passing by this morning too – mostly Gannets, Kittiwakes and Guillemots, blown inshore by the wind. Two dark juvenile Arctic Skuas came through reasonably close and disappeared off east. A single Manx Shearwater was too far out for everyone to get onto. A Great Northern Diver flew west, typically flying strongly well above the waves, despite the wind. But there was no sign of any Pomarine Skuas or Little Auks while we were watching, which we had thought we might see this morning.

There are always a small number of Purple Sandpipers along the shoreline here through the winter and a much larger number of Turnstones. The Turnstones will often run along the prom but the Purple Sandpipers are normally down on the rocks below. However, the crashing waves were obviously too much even for the hardy Purple Sandpiper today, and a couple of times it was pushed up onto the prom in front of us. When it flew back down onto the rocks, we had a good look at it over the railings.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – on the rocks just below the Prom

We only spent an hour seawatching this morning, then with other things we wanted to try to see, we decided to move on. As we drove west along the coast road, we could see a large flock of Pink-footed Geese in a stubble field. We found somewhere to pull in and would down the windows. The geese nearest us flew up and settled again towards the back of the field, out of view, but it was clear we couldn’t get out of the car without flushing the rest of the flock. We could still see quite a few geese from the car, but most of them were hidden now in a dip in the field.

There were several Red-legged Partridges feeding in the stubble too, and we heard Skylarks calling as we opened the windows. A couple of smart Yellowhammers perched in the hedge nearby, calling..

Continuing on to Salthouse, we parked by the duck pond. As we got out of the car, a Woodcock shot past. It felt like it might almost have crashed into us, but veered round, over the road and into the gardens beyond. Another bird arriving from the winter, possibly from as far away as Russia, presumably fresh in and looking for somewhere sheltered to rest. Several Black-tailed Godwits were standing around in the pools behind the duck pond.

There has been an ‘Eastern’ Stonechat here for the last week or so, which we were keen to see. As we walked down along the track, we could see quite a crowd gathered already, but they didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular, mostly standing around chatting. Apparently the Stonechat had not been seen for the last 15 minutes – it was clearly keeping down out of the wind today.

We walked up to where it had last been seen and scanned the edge of the grazing marsh, but couldn’t see any sign of it. Then we walked back to where it had been favouring in previous days, out from one of the field gates. It wasn’t out there either, but scanning back along the reedy ditch which runs beside the path, we spotted the Stonechat down in the vegetation.

It was obviously more sheltered down in the ditch but you could only see the Stonechat looking back from the gate and it kept disappearing into the reeds. When it did finally venture out onto the edge of the grazing marsh where it was more visible, a Sparrowhawk promptly appeared just beyond it, flying out low over the grass. The Stonechat sensibly dived back into the reeds, but then went made its way further back along the ditch away from us, where we couldn’t see it.

About half the group had managed to see the Stonechat, but there was a big crowd by the gate so not everyone had got onto it. Climbing up onto the top of the bank, we walked along level with where it had been. After a few minutes scanning, we spotted it again out in the middle of the grazing marsh this time.

The Stonechat was well camouflaged against the dead sedges, shades of orange and brown. But the wind seemed to have dropped, and it became more active, perching up on the top of the vegetation like a good Stonechat should! Finally, we all got nice views of it through the scope.

Stejneger's Stonechat

‘Eastern’ Stonechat – this photo taken yesterday, hopefully DNA will confirm its identity

‘Eastern’ Stonechat is the name currently being used for a group of species, including Siberian and Stejneger’s Stonechats, both of which can turn up here. It used to be much simpler, as they were all lumped together under the title ‘Siberian’, but DNA analysis has shown Stejneger’s to be distinct from Siberian and it is now treated as a full species in its own right. Unfortunately, our ability to identify these birds in the field has not kept up with the pace of taxonomic change driven by genetics!

The Salthouse Stonechat appears to be a Stejneger’s Stonechat – at least it looks similar to Stejneger’s Stonechats which have been confirmed by DNA testing recently. Hopefully, DNA has been collected and will be able to confirm it’s identity. If it is not Stejneger’s, then it will be back to the drawing board with the ID criteria!

Either way, it is an interesting and well travelled bird. ‘Eastern’ Stonechats breed across Russia to Japan and China, mostly wintering on the Indian subcontinent, with the range of Stejneger’s being further east than Siberian.

Once we had all enjoyed good views of the Stonechat, we drove on to Cley and stopped at the Visitor’s Centre for an early lunch. There were lots of birds on the scrapes and, with the wind having dropped a bit, we could even eat at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve.

A Marsh Harrier drifted across the scrapes, causing a mass panic, flushing  lots of Black-tailed Godwit and Wigeon. Thankfully, as it drifted off, the birds all seemed to settle back down. Two Lesser Redpoll flew over calling and eight Golden Plover circled over. The surprise here was a Gannet circling over the fields behind the Visitor Centre, presumably blown inland on the wind.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – circled over the scrapes, flushing everything

After lunch, we could see black clouds approaching from the north, so we decided to head out to the hides, where we could get some shelter. As we walked along the Skirts path, a Spoonbill flew past over the reserve. Most of the Spoonbills which spent the summer here have departed now, with many of them heading down to Poole Harbour for the winter. There are only one or two still lingering on, so it was nice to see one today. It circled over the scrapes and looked like it might land, but then continue on east.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – flew east as we walked out to the hides

By the time we got out to Dauke’s Hide and looked out, we were surprised by the comparative lack of birds, particularly compared to the masses we had seen when we were eating lunch. Talking to one of the volunteers in the hide, it seems the Marsh Harriers had made several more passes over the scrapes and eventually succeeded in scaring off most of the birds. We could still see a couple of Marsh Harriers quartering the reedbed in the distance.

There were still a few waders left. A couple of little groups of Dunlin were picking around on the muddy edges of the islands. Several Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the deeper water. The Lapwing were mostly asleep on the grass and a lone Avocet was standing in the water behind one of the islands. Like the Spoonbills, most of the Avocets have gone south now for the winter, but a very small number always try to remain as long as it doesn’t get too cold. A Common Snipe dropped in at back, but quickly disappeared into grass.

Avocet

Avocet – just the one left at Cley now

There were still a few ducks left on the scrapes too, mainly Wigeon and Teal, along with a few Shelduck. The Black-headed Gulls were joined by a couple of Common Gulls and a single Lesser Black-backed Gull was asleep on one of the grassy islands. The Spoonbill came back west and headed off towards Blakeney Harbour.

While we were in the hide, it started to rain, so we stayed in the dry until it eventually eased. Then we headed back to the car, and drove round to the East Bank car park. As we got a short distance up the bank, it started to sleet, so heads down, we walked quickly up to the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh.

The forecast was for heavy showers, but the weather seemed to set in for a while now. There was lots of water already on Arnold’s Marsh, which was good for the ducks, presumably with many coming over here when they were flushed from the scrapes. There were lots of Wigeon and Teal again, but with a few Shoveler here too. Scanning through carefully, we found a female Pintail and four Gadwall in with them. A group of Brent Geese dropped in, possibly fresh arrivals stopping for a rest. With the high water levels, the Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the tall vegetation around the edges.

We had been told about two Snow Buntings feeding at the end of the bank, by the beach. When the rain finally eased again, we walked up to look for them but as we arrived we could see two walkers had just come up off the beach and gone right through the area. There was no sign of any Snow Buntings, presumably having been flushed.

We set off east along the grassy part of the old shingle ridge, but there was no sign of them along here. When we got back to the East Bank,  the Snow Buntings flew up from the shingle ahead of us, presumably having flown back in. They landed back on the north end of the path just a few metres ahead of us and we had nice views of them as they fed on amongst the stones, picking around the clusters of vegetation. They were looking a bit bedraggled, but we were probably too!

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – out on the beach, looking a bit bedraggled

While we were watching the Snow Buntings, we noticed a large dark bird drifting west right past us, with the gulls over the beach. It was a Pomarine Skua. We watched it as it hung in the wind – we could see it was heavy, bulky, especially compared the Arctic Skuas we had seen earlier. It landed on the beach and we could just about see it in the scope from here through the sea spray, so we walked over for a closer look.

After we had all had a good look at the Pomarine Skua in the scope, it took off and flew further west again. It looked like it went down towards the beach car park, so we  decided to head back to the car and drive round there to see if we could find it again.

As we walked back along the East Bank, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and looked up to see a small skein coming in from the east. They came in overhead and dropped down towards the reserve. Four Marsh Harriers were already gathering to roost out over the reeds.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Geese – flying in to the reserve, late afternoon

By the time we got round to the beach car park at Cley, the Pomarine Skua had taken off and gone further west again. Looking out to sea, there were still lots of Kittiwakes & and Gannets pouring past. Lines of Brent Geese were still moving west offshore too.

We were just about to leave when someone seawatching there shouted that there were two Little Auks on the sea. They were in the surf just offshore, drifting west towards us, but despite being close they were still hard to see in the crashing waves. We managed to get the scope on them, and you could see them as they rode up the face of the waves.

They seemed to swim a bit further out and we lost sight of the Little Auks. Then we noticed a Great Black-backed Gull drop down into the breakers, followed by three more. When they came up again, one of them was carrying a Little Auk in its bill! We didn’t see what happened to the second one, but Little Auks are always vulnerable when they are blown in by gales. They breed in the Arctic and spend the rest of their lives far out at sea, away from predators like gulls. They are often exhausted when they are close inshore and easy pickings for the gulls.

That was a fairly gruesome end to our seawatching today – nature red in tooth and claw! We still had one more stop to make on our way back. With the blustery wind and rain, the Peregrine was in its usual spot on the sheltered side of the church tower, tucked in an alcove between the stone pillars. We stopped and had a nice look at it through the scope.

Peregrine

Peregrine – tucked in out of the wind, on the south side of the tower

We had done well today, despite the wind and rain. The weather forecast is a bit better for tomorrow, so let’s see what the wind had brought us!

5th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. It was cloudy and increasingly blustery today, with winds gusting to 47mph this afternoon, so we spent the day dodging the showers. Still, it was surprising how much we saw despite the weather.

As we drove east along the coast road this morning, we flushed lots of Blackbirds and Chaffinches from the sides of the road. Our first destination was Blakeney, for a quick walk out around the Freshes before the wind picked up later. A couple of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the harbour channel just across from the car park but we could immediately see that one was much paler than the other. A closer look confirmed, one was a Pale-bellied Brent and the other a Dark-bellied Brent Goose.

6o0a7350Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese – a nice comparison

Dark-bellied is the regular form of Brent Goose which winters in large numbers here. This subspecies breeds in arctic Russia. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard west across arctic Canada and winter mainly on the west coast of Scotland and in Ireland. We normally get a handful of Pale-bellied in with the flocks of Dark-bellied Brents here each winter and they occasionally form mixed pairs. Today was a great opportunity to see them side by side.

While we were watching the Brent Geese, we heard a Kingfisher call and looked across the channel to see two Kingfishers chasing each other low over the water. They flew over to our side of the channel and disappeared over the bank towards the Freshes. A little later we saw one of the zip back low across the reeds towards the wildfowl collection. A Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds a little further along.

Further along the seawall, as we got almost to the corner, we turned to look at the Freshes just in time to glimpse a dumpy bird dropping down into the grass on the edge of a flooded depression. We had a pretty good idea what it was, but we couldn’t see it from the seawall or from the path the other side. As we approached for a closer look, a Jack Snipe flew up and shot off towards the harbour – just what we had suspected. In flight, we could really see the small size and the shorter bill compared to a Common Snipe.

We continued on along the north side of the Freshes bank. There were lots of Skylarks down in the short weedy vegetation beyond the fence. A flock of Linnets flew in and dropped down there too briefly. A Rock Pipit flew over calling and landed on the fence, where we could get a good look at it through the scope. Reed Buntings occasionally flew up from the bushes but quickly disappeared back down again. A female Stonechat worked its way along the fence, dropping down onto the side of the bank periodically to look for food.

6o0a7371Stonechat – this lone female was working its way along the fence line

It is very exposed to the elements out on the seawall here. The wind was now starting to pick up and we could see dark clouds coming in towards us over the sea, so we decided to head back to the car. We had a quick look at the wildfowl in the Blakeney collection – none of which were allowed on the bird list for the day of course! We were just settled back in the warmth of the car when we saw two Peregrines over the edge of Friary Hills. A larger adult Peregrine, presumably a female, was chasing a smaller male juvenile – they swooped low over the grass before disappearing behind a hedge, coming out the other side and zooming off over the houses.

With the deterioration in the weather, we decided to head inland to get some respite. There have been some Waxwings in Holt for the last couple of days and as we turned into the road where they have most often been seen we could immediately see several photographers with long lenses pointed up into the trees. Even before we stopped, we could see Waxwings, and we could hear them calling as we got out of the car.

6o0a7387Waxwing – there were at least 20 in Holt today

There were at least 20 Waxwings, but they were hard to count as they were feeding in several different trees, and frequently flying round in small groups or singles. The bulk of the group seemed to keep returning to the top of a large chestnut tree, where they were hard to see among the leaves. From there, they would drop down into several smaller rowans, where they would proceed to wolf down the red berries, much to the annoyance of the local Blackbirds! There was also an apple tree in one of the front gardens by the road, and several of the Waxwings kept coming down to attack the apples, clinging on to them and biting away at the flesh where they had been half eaten already.

6o0a7454Waxwing – feeding on apples, as well as rowan berries

Having feasted ourselves, on such excellent views of such gorgeous looking birds, when the Waxwings flew off and disappeared round behind the buildings, we decided to move on. Our next stop was at Sheringham, where we went for a walk along the sea front.We thought we might pick up some seabirds on our way, but at first it seemed a little quiet, apart from hordes of Turnstones around the fishing boats which had been hauled up the slipway.

6o0a7525Turnstone – lots along the prom at Sheringham

There was no sign of any Purple Sandpipers on their usual favourite rocks below the pub, but when we got to the shelter at the east end of the prom, we could see first one and then two Purple Sandpipers distantly out on the sea defences.

We stopped to talk to another couple of local birders who told us that the movement of seabirds was just picking up, after the wind had strengthened. A line of Common Scoter flew past with a single Tufted Duck in amongst them. A steady stream of Gannets tacked across the wind, heading east offshore, both white adults and dark grey-brown juveniles. There were little groups of Guillemots zooming across and a couple of Red-throated Divers went past too.Then a few Great Skuas started to pass by – in the half hour we stood there sheltering from the wind, we saw about ten – but they were all rather distant and hard to get everyone onto. A single juvenile Pomarine Skua was even further offshore.

As a particularly fierce squall blew in off the sea, we took shelter until it passed. Perhaps prompted by a Sanderling which came in with them, the two Purple Sandpipers took off and flew towards us, passing by and heading back to the rocks below the pub. We waited until the rain had stopped and decided to walk back to look for them. Unfortunately, by that stage they had disappeared again. We did find a couple of Ringed Plovers which had probably stopped off with the Turnstones to sit out the wind.

6o0a7527Ringed Plover – stopped off with the Turnstones on the slipway

After lunch and a welcome hot drink back along the coast road at Cley, we drove round to Iron Road and headed down along Attenborough’s Way. There was a nice flock of Brent Geese out on the grazing meadows (all Dark-bellieds), and as well as the plain backed adults we could see quite a few stripe-backed juveniles. Hopefully, as the Brent Goose numbers increase over the coming weeks, it will prove to have been a good breeding season for them this year.

6o0a7537Brent Geese – adults & juveniles on the grazing marshes

Round at Babcock Hide, the wind was now whistling across the marshes. A little flock of Dunlin were feeding down at the front of the scrape below the hide, but they were very skittish and kept whirling round before dropping back down again. A pair of Redshank were defending their feeding territory in front of the hide, chasing off any others which tried to land there.

First one Black-tailed Godwit dropped in, then another five, stopping to feed for a few minutes before flying off again, flashing their boldly marked black and white wings. A couple of little groups of Lapwing flew in from the east and stopped to rest for a minute or two on the islands.

None of the waders would settle, in part because there were a couple of Marsh Harriers about. First, a dark juvenile flew across the reeds at the back of the pool, and drifted off towards Salthouse. Then a young male Marsh Harrier, with paler underwings and small patches of paler grey emerging on its upperwings, did the same. As they came over the grazing marshes, all the Wigeon shot out into the middle of the water from the banks. There were a few Teal and Mallard with them and three Shoveler appeared from behind the reeds too.

When a particularly dark cloud had passed over, we returned to the car and drove back round to the main part of the reserve. Just as we set out to walk to the hides, it started to rain so we hurried out along the boardwalk – thankfully it was only light rain and we got out there without getting wet.

There were several Shelduck out on Pat’s Pool and  huddle of gulls out beyond the first island. A few Teal were out on one of the further islands, but there were not many waders – three Dunlin at the back and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits roosting in with the gulls. Simmond’s Scrape held more wildfowl – a larger flock of Wigeon, a good number of Teal and a huddle of around 20 Pintail asleep behind one of the islands. Presumably the waders had gone elsewhere in search of food and shelter. A Common Snipe was feeding on the bank outside Dauke’s Hide but flew across and landed down behind the grass in front of Teal Hide where we couldn’t see it.

A couple more Marsh Harriers quartered the reedbed beyond the scrapes this side. The light was starting to fade already and they were presumably gathering before going to roost. Several Pied Wagtails flew past while we watched, some of them dropping in to the islands briefly, before continuing on their way heading off to roost.

6o0a7562Marsh Harrier – gathering over the reeds before going to roost

Turning our attention to the gulls, we could immediately see a good selection of different species – Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. One of the herring gull-types looked different – it was very white-headed, whereas Herring Gulls typically have lots of grey blotches around the head at this time of year. Against the white head, the beady black eye really stood out – the nearby Herring Gulls instead showing a very pale iris. It was  an adult Caspian Gull.

img_8262Caspian Gull – this adult was hunkered down against the wind on Pat’s Pool

The Caspian Gull was hunkered down against the wind and didn’t initially look as long-billed and long-faced as they usually do. It kept returning to a little patch of cut rushes, behind which it tried to crouch down and shelter. However, the mantle was noticeably half a shade darker than the nearby Herring Gulls. Eventually, the Caspian Gull walked up onto the island and started preening, and now finally we could see the distinctive long head and bill.

Cley in the late evening is normally a good place to see different gulls gathering before they go to roost, but the Caspian Gulls often come in very late, just as it is getting dark, so we were lucky this one had arrived nice and early today. When some of the gulls flew across to Simmond’s Scrape, we turned to look there and found an adult Yellow-legged Gull to add to the day’s gull list. It was with a Lesser and a Great Black-backed Gull, giving a good comparison in mantle tone – it was noticeably much darker grey than the Herring Gulls but paler and less slatey than the Lesser Black-backeds.

At first, the Yellow-legged Gull was up to its belly in the water but eventually it climbed out onto the mud and we could finally see its deep yellow legs. The light was starting to fade now, and consequently they might not have appeared as bright to the unitiated as they otherwise would have done. It was time to call it a day, but it had been a nice way to end with such a good selection of gulls gathering.

13th October 2015 – Full of Eastern Promise

Another Autumn Tour today. With winds from the east, it has been very exciting here in recent days, so we set out to catch up on a few of the recent attractions and check out if there had been any new arrivals.

We started at Stiffkey, with the intention of walking west from Greenway towards Warham Greens. With the wind veering NE and picking up, with cloud and rain, it felt like there might have been some new birds in overnight. The coastal hedges here seemed like a good place to look.

It was very exposed out along the edge of the saltmarsh, with the wind gusting over 30mph, and at first the bushes seemed rather quiet. We scanned the saltmarsh as we walked – there were plenty of Brent Geese in now, feeding on the eel grass, plus lots of Curlew and Redshank and several Little Egrets. A couple of Marsh Harriers were out quartering the saltmarsh.

P1110513Brent Geese – when they first arrive, they all like to feed on the saltmarshes

We could hear a couple of Goldcrests calling from the bushes, but couldn’t see them at first. They were obviously keeping down out of the wind. Then we came across a flock of Long-tailed Tits and two Goldcrests with them were more obliging. Still, there didn’t seem as many here as in recent days.  We flushed a few Song Thrushes from the hedges as we walked, and a Redwing, but there was nothing to suggest any significant numbers had come in overnight. We were making our way back when a red tail flicked over a bush by the path and disappeared – presumably a Redstart, although it didn’t show itself again. As we stood and waited to see if it might reappear, a Blackcap hopped up to feed on the blackberries.

P1110499Blackcap – feeding on blackberries

We had a quick look in campsite wood – and the place was absolutely alive with Goldcrests. We stopped to watch them dropping down out of the trees into the bushes out on the campsite to feed, then zooming back up into the trees again. There had been a report of a couple of Firecrests further along, in some trees on the edge of the campsite, but all the crests had moved on by the time we got there. While it was amazing to watch all the Goldcrests feeding feverishly, it was a struggle to see the birds in the canopy of the wood itself. Eventually, we decided to move on.

We made our way east along the coast to Beeston Common. There has been an Isabelline Shrike here for a couple of days already, and it has been a real performer. It was on form again today – perched high in the top of a hawthorn as we arrived, for all to see. We watched it in the scope for a while, then it set off on  a sally out across the common, catching a bee and taking it back to the bush to incapacitate and then eat it.

IMG_1976Isabelline Shrike – showing well at Beeston Common

It flew around several times, moving between bushes, looking around all the time for prey. Even when it started to rain lightly at one point, it still sat up in the bushes. It was great to watch. Some video of it from yesterday is below.

After that crowd-pleasing performance, we had a short walk over the common to see what else we could see. There has been a Yellow-browed Warbler or two here in recent days, but we couldn’t find the tit flock today – it was just a bit too windy out there. We decided to head back to the car.

We drove to Cley and, after a stop at the Visitor Centre, we drove round to the beach car park. The morning had already gone, so we ate our lunch in the beach shelter out of the wind. While we were eating, we kept one eye on the sea. Seawatching can always produce interesting birds, with a decent onshore wind. There were plenty of Gannets going past today, adults with black-tipped white wings and lots of slaty-grey juveniles. And a steady stream of little groups of auks – mostly Guillemots, but we also picked up several blunt-billed Razorbills too.

P1110527Gannet – one of the many juveniles past today

While we were eating, the vigilence paid off. We picked up a distant Sooty Shearwater flying past, alternately arcing up high over the sea and dipping down to skim low over the waves. We could see its dark underparts, ruling out the commoner Manx Shearwater. After we had finished eating and suitably emboldened by the shearwater, we decided to move round to the side of the shelter to have a more concerted effort at seawatching.

It certainly paid off! Next up, another Sooty Shearwater came past, much closer this time, giving us all a great view. Then a skua appeared low over the sea to our left, heading our way. We got it in the scope and could see that it was a Pomarine Skua and a super smart adult to boot. As it came past we could even see the ‘spoons’ – the elongated, spatulate central tail feathers which project out the back, characteristic of the species. Stunning! Then another shearwater appeared, a bit further out and this time keeping very low over the sea. It was fairly dark again, but shorter winged and dumpier than the Sooty. It was a Balearic Shearwater from the Mediterranean. To round things off nicely, a Great Skua flew past us next – big, bulky & dark, with steady and deliberate wingbeats. We hadn’t intended to seatwatch today, and only gave it about half an hour, so this was an amazing return. If only every day seawatching could be as good as this!!

There was still no real sense of any major new influx of passerines on the wind, so we decided to make our way back to Holkham to try to catch up with the star bird there – a Red-flanked Bluetail which had been found lurking in some dense sallows yesterday. We parked at Lady Anne’s Drive and made our way west along the inner edge of the pines. We were serenaded by the yelping of Pink-footed Geese as we walking. At Salts Hole, we stopped to admire the Little Grebes. At least 5 today, there was lots of territorial chasing going on and lots of maniacal laughter.

P1110536Little Grebe – one of the pairs at Salts Hole

A little further along, we heard a Marsh Tit calling. We could see it moving around in the low elm suckers alongside the path. It was fascinating to watch – it pulled a dried leaf from one of the trees and took it to a nearby perch, where it starting pecking at the leaf violently. It gradually became clear that the leaf was curled over and after a second or two the Marsh Tit pulled out a caterpillar. It had obviously cocooned itself into a leaf, but the Marsh Tit had realised it was hiding in there and had taken the leaf off to extract it. Very clever.

We detoured up the boardwalk by Washington Hide. The trees here can be very good for birds, but it was just too exposed and gusty there today and they were quiet, apart from yet more Goldcrests. We stopped to look at a small party of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. In the bushes down on the edge of the reedbed, several Redwings were feeding on berries. A Sparrowhawk flew in and landed in a hawthorn, looking round hungrily.

The pool in front of Washington Hide was fairly empty today, and we were just walking back down the boardwalk when a large white shape started to take off from one of the ditches just to the east. The Great White Egret had obviously been hiding in there, out of view, today. We watched it fly across and then drop down into another ditch further over, out of view again.

P1110546Great White Egret – flying between ditches this afternoon

We continued our way west, stopping occasionally to watch the tit flocks or the Goldcrests coming down to bathe in a puddle. A very white Common Buzzard has returned to the bushes over by the church – it was there last winter and was causing some confusion again today.

There is always lots to see here, but we had really come hoping to see the Red-flanked Bluetail and time was getting on, so we made our way to the trees where it had been showing. We hadn’t been there long, when it suddenly appeared from the sallows behind and started to feed on the brambles. We could see the bright blue tail as it flicked around on the bushes, and the deep orange flank patches. Once an almost mythical rare visitor here, they are now turning up more often, but are still an absolute delight to see.

P1110554Red-flanked Bluetail – a record shot in poor light this afternoon

It has been hassled repeatedly by the local Robins and obviously didn’t fancy spending too long out in the open, so darted back into the sallows. Having seen it so easily, we hung around a short while to see if we could see it again. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. However, while we were waiting we did hear a Yellow-browed Warbler calling loudly from the sallows. When a bird appeared on the edge of the sallows immediately after, we thought that would be it – but it turned out to be a Firecrest instead. It didn’t stay long and disappeared back into the bushes.

We didn’t have time to linger too long, so set off back to the car. We still had time for one last bird – on our way back, another Firecrest had been seen in the holm oaks beside the path. We arrived just in time to see it flicking around amongst the branches, before it suddenly darted out and disappeared into the trees behind.

It was time to call it a day, but it had been a great Autumn day out – with some top quality rare visitors and a classic seawatching session in the middle!